DURING THE 1980S, ACCORDING TO CENSUS figures released last May 11, the United States admitted 8.6 million immigrants. In the context of U.S. immigration history this is a staggering number—more than in any decade since 1900-1910. Worldwide, half the decade's emigrants had made the United States their destination. Of them, 11 percent—more than three quarters of a million-further specified their choice as Los Angeles. By the end of the decade 40 percent of all Angelenos were foreign-born; 49.9 percent spoke a language other than English at home; 35.3 percent spoke Spanish. This is the city where, two weeks before those figures were released, the most violent urban riot in American history broke out: fifty-one people were killed, and property worth $ 750 million or more was lost. Though the occasion for the riot was the acquittal of four white policemen on charges of assaulting a black traffic offender, Latinos as well as African-Americans rioted. Why? What was Rodney King to Latinos? Did a race riot, once begun, degenerate—or progress—into a bread riot? Was it a vast crime spree, as devoid of political content as the looting that followed the 1977 blackout in New York City? Of those arrested afterward—-of whom more than half were Latino 40 percent already had criminal records. Was the riot a defeat of the police? If it was a hybrid of all these, was it, finally, an aberration from which, by hard work, America's second-largest city could recover? Or was it the annunciation of a new and permanent state of affairs?
I work at the Los Angeles Times, writing a column for that newspaper's book supplement and unsigned editorials three or four times a week for its editorial page. On the day after the first night of the riot, one of my colleagues said to me, as we left to hunt for a still-open restaurant, "When the barbarians sacked Rome in 410, the Romans thought it was the end of civilization. You smile—but what followed was the Dark Ages." Think of what follows here as the voice of a worried Roman—in front of a television set, watching the Goths at their sack.
I CAME TO LOS ANGELES IN 1978, TO WORK AS AN EDITOR in the branch office of the University of California Press at UCLA. The first home I owned here was a house trailer in Malibu. In 1981 a Santa Ana—one of the notorious local windstorms—ripped off the carport attached to the trailer and did some further damage to the roof. My wife and I had some insurance, but not enough. To help me complete my do-it-yourself repairs, I hired two Mexican boys from the pool of laborers who gathered daily near a shopping center just off the Pacific Coast Highway. One of the two, Ricky Rodriguez (not his real name), just fifteen years old when we met him, would become almost literally a member of our family.
One Sunday afternoon, after Ricky had been working with me part-time for several weeks, a Coast Highway landslide cut Malibu in half, and we invited Ricky to stay overnight. The buses weren't running. His alternatives, both illegal, were sleeping on the beach and sleeping in some neglected patch of brush along the road. He accepted the invitation and on the morrow brought my wife and me a breakfast in bed consisting of flied eggs and peanut butter sandwiches. In the sudden, unforeseen intimacy of the moment, a kind of conversation began different from any we had yet had. We began to learn something about his family.
Ricky, his mother, two sisters, and a brother were living in City Terrace Park, a neighborhood in East Los Angeles, as the permanent houseguests of another sister, her husband, and their two small children: nine people in a two-bedroom cottage. Ricky's brother-in-law, at the time the only American citizen in the family, was a cook whose generous employer had bought him this cottage. (Later, Juan Jose—called Juanjo for short—would open his own burrito shop.) Ricky invited me to visit his family, and I did so. I had never been in the barrio before.
Ricky continued working for us over several months. Relations remained friendly, and he eventually asked if we would adopt him, purely for legal reasons: to make him a citizen. His mother and I visited a sympathetic Chicano immigration lawyer, but Mexico's laws protecting its children made the move legally complicated. I did agree, however, to tutor Ricky through his remaining two years of high school—and here we return to the riot as an event in a mecca for immigrants.
As a taxpayer, I was surprised—not that I wasn't happy for our young friend—to discover that his status as an illegal immigrant was no bar to his attending high school at state expense. He did have to show a birth certificate; but, interestingly, his mother, a short, stout, indomitably cheerful woman who had crossed the border as a single mother with four children, of whom the youngest was a toddler at the time, had brought birth certificates with her. She had had education on her mind from the start, and a Guadalajara certificate was certificate enough for Wilson High School, which received money from the state on a per capita basis and would have lost money had illegal immigrants been denied admission.
Another surprise came in Ricky's senior year, when he asked if I would accompany him to the Department of Motor Vehicles and permit him to take a driving test in my car. (My presence and signature may have been required in some other capacity as well; I can no longer quite remember.) I knew by then that illegal immigrants commonly drove the streets and freeways of Los Angeles without any kind of driver's license. Ricky wanted a license mainly because it provided an identification card and a degree of cover for someone seeking work. He took and passed the test in the Lincoln Heights DMV office not far from downtown Los Angeles.
But here again I was surprised that no proof of legal residency was requested for the receipt of a California driver's license. On the Coast Highway, I had witnessed hair-raising "sweeps" by Immigration and Naturalization Service agents on the very corner where I had hired Ricky. Such chases farther south, at an INS checkpoint on Interstate 5, north of San Diego, led with grim frequency to traffic deaths. Why did the INS not simply come to the DMV office in Lincoln Heights and arrest applicants? As we waited in line to deliver Ricky's completed written test, we overheard the clerk administering the same test orally—in Spanish—to a short older man with a coppery Amerindian face. He would have fallen one answer short of the passing grade had she not given him a broad hint.
The DMV office had as foreign a feel to it as the correo in Mexico City. One heard almost no English at all. Ricky took his test not long after Election Day that year. The contrast between the two populations—the one in the polling station, the other at the DMV was overwhelming. The DMV office seemed to be a part of the American administration of some foreign—or indigenous but subject—population.
BACK TO THE RIOT: WAS THERE A POLITICAL MOtive for the Latino rioting? There is a radical fringe of Chicano activists with a political agenda for the land they call Aztlan: northwest Mexico and the southwest United States. They claim, not without reason, that Chicano farm workers now sweat on land stolen from their ancestors. But Ricky and his family take a different view. I learned in passing that as an eighthgrader Ricky had donned a feather headdress and a loincloth and danced in a "folkloric" group organized by one of his teachers, but the Aztecs meant no more to him than the Illinois did to me as a Boy Scout in Chicago. Ricky's older brother, Victor, once asked me in puzzlement why Americans gave Spanish names to their houses and boats. Why not English names? A rich and interesting question, perhaps, but not one that betrayed a political agenda.
We learned later that in fact many if not most of the Latino rioters were either Central Americans or very recent Mexican immigrants, and that what the riot might have been to us Anglos, it was also, to some considerable extent, to the established Mexican-American political leadership. They, too, were wondering about a huge, strange, possibly angry, Spanish-speaking population in their midst. Who were these people, and what did they want? If they had no political agenda, if they were common criminals, well, that, too—given their growing numbers and the demonstrated inadequacy of the police— was news, wasn't it? The population of South Central Los Angeles had doubled since 1965. For every black in the area there was now at least one Latino. That had to make a difference. But what kind of difference?
In the weeks following the riot, Latino leaders from East Los Angeles were concerned that the sudden spotlight on South Central Los Angeles would rob them of scarce government funds. They were on guard against the possibility that South Central Los Angeles would be rewarded for its violence and East Los Angeles punished for its good behavior. "Just because we didn't erupt in East L.A., does that translate into us being ignored or missing out on the funds that are funneling into the communities?" asked Geraldine Zapata, the executive director of the Plaza Community Center. But the more immediate challenge to Mexican East Los Angeles was coming to terms with Central American South Central Los Angeles.
THE MAINSTREAM INTERPRETATION HAD LITtle to say about either Mexicans or Central Americans. It took the riot to be Watts II, a repetition of the 1965 black riot, touched off by the verdict in the King case but growing out of the deeper frustrations of the black population over rising unemployment, institutionalized police brutality, and eroded public assistance. That interpretation was surely right as far as it went. Those who mentally bracketed the riot between the videotaped beatings of King by a gang of white policemen and of Reginald Denny, a white trucker, by a gang of black rioters were not altogether wrong to do so.
And this interpretation was reinforced during the weeks following the riot by the competing rhetoric of black rappets on the one hand and the police on the other. On June 26, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates's last day on the job, Amnesty International released a report, "Police Brutality in Los Angeles," claiming that the department used its Taser guns and turned loose its dogs on suspects who were not resisting arrest or had already been taken into custody. LAPD brutality, the report claimed, "has even amounted to torture." Gates replied by denouncing the organization as "a bunch of knucklehead liberals" who "attack everything that is good in the country ... and good in the world."
Earlier, Sergeant Stacey C. Koon, the commanding ofricer in the King beating, had discussed his unpublished memoir, "The Ides of March," with reporters, apparently in an attempt to sell it. The manuscript includes the following description of Koon's treatment of a Latino said to be under the influence of the drug PCP (the same was said, wrongly, of Rodney King):
My boot came from the area of lower California and connected with the suspect's scrotum about lower Missouri. My boot stopped about Ohio, but the suspect's testicles continued into upper Maine. The suspect was literally liked off the ground. The suspect tried to speak, but it appeared he had something in his throat— probably his balls.
That beating, captured on videotape, became a popular training tool for young officers. "The tape was to become a legend in its own time," Koon wrote. A Latino may thus have been Koon's most abused victim. However, it was Koon's reference to King as "Mandingo" that attracted the most outraged comment. In general, the more postriot analysis concentrated on violence and the police, the closer it stayed to the Watts II, black-white interpretation.
The same interpretation, though with one important qualification, was fostered by the popularity—among whites as well as blacks—of virulently racist, grotesquely violent black music, much of it originating in Los Angeles. On June 23 both the city council and the county board of supervisors called on Time Warner and local retailers to discontinue sales of Ice-T's album Body Count. Later Willie L. Williams, the newly sworn-in black police chief, did the same. "Cop Killer," then one of the cuts on that album, includes the chorus:
COP KILLER, it's better you than me.
COP KILLER, fuck police brutality!
COP KILLER, I know your family's grievin'
COP KILLER, but tonight we get even.
Ice-T defended himself rather in the manner of a novelist. He told a New York audience, "At no point do I go out and say, 'Let's do it.' I'm singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. I ain't never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it." This justification was a little thin for the grieving widow and daughter ("Fuck 'em!") of a slain officer who had testified before the city council. Norma Williams's husband, Tom, was murdered by Daniel Jenkins, against whom he had testified in an armed-robbery case. Jenkins ambushed Williams as the policeman was picking up his six-year-old son at a day-care center, pumping eight bullets into the detective's body while the boy watched and later, according to the testimony of an accomplice, describing with pleasure how the victim's body convulsed with the impact of each bullet. "Cop Killer" has a spoken, prose prologue:
This next record is dedicated to some personal friends of mine, the LAPD. For every cop that has ever taken advantage of somebody, beat 'em down or hurt 'em, because they got long hair, listen to the wrong kind of music, the wrong color, whatever they thought was the reason to do it, for every one of those fuckin' police, I'd like to take a pig out here in this parkin' lot and shoot 'em in their motherfuckin' face.
Willie Williams's reaction to this was "I have major problems with it as an American, as a parent, and as a police officer. I have buried five police officers during my career .... I think it's a disgrace that any singer would use such vulgarity and give the implication that killing an officer is okay." Williams was joined by relatives of the slain officer as he called on Time Warner to withdraw the album: "I think that, minding the Constitution, it should be voluntarily withdrawn." Los Angeles's African-American Peace Officers' Association disagreed with the new chief, but on balance the "Cop Killer" controversy had kept the focus on blacks and the police and away from more complex, multi-ethnic readings of the riot.
As a riot paradigm, Watts II had two versions: the black and the white, or (almost, but not quite, the same) the liberal and the conservative. An independent commission, chaired by the former deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher, had investigated the LAPD after the Rodney King beating and recommended major changes. The most important of them—limiting the chief's tenure in office and making him and the police department more clearly subordinate to elected government than they had been under the civil-service model—were overwhelmingly approved by the voters in June. Liberals saw the future in that vote. Conservatives saw the future less in the vote than in the 64 percent jump in handgun purchases which followed the riot.
THERE IS IN FACT FACT MORE CONVERGENCE HERE than meets the eye. Proposition F, the policereform measure, passed despite fierce opposition by the chief and much of the police department, but it didn't pass because the voters wanted less policing. The LAPD has been a quasi-military, cold, hard, swift, but—most important—small and low-cost police force. The police have been in effect the domestic Marines, flying in to put down insurrections. They have not been an occupying force, and yet an occupying force is precisely what the population wants and needs.
"Community policing," the alternative whose revival (there's nothing new about it) was urged by the Christopher Commission, amounts to a steady, low-level involvement by a resident force with the law-abiding portion of the population in the interests of more effectively controlling the lawbreaking portion. During the riot the National Guard, which came and went in a matter of days, was far more like a community police force than the community's own police force. The news photographs— Guardsmen talking to children, strolling in pairs down the sidewalks, and so forth—were of scenes that would be noticeably out of character for the hard-assed LAPD. An English friend of mine who a few years ago approached an LAPD officer in downtown Los Angeles to ask for directions was told, "Buy a map." Whatever Los Angeles cops are, they are not helpful bobbies. "Smoked Pork," the opening cut on Body Count, begins with a playlet. A young black approaches a cop asking for help with a flat tire. The cop snarls, "No! That's not my job! My job is not to help your fuckin' ass out!" The black then "smokes" him.
The Guardsmen seemed young, small, out of shape, and amateurish by comparison with the LAPD, but the sentiment universally expressed when their withdrawal was announced was a wish that they would stay longer. Since the LAPD had failed to stop the outbreak of the riot, few had much confidence that it could stop a recurrence. More than that, there was a faint sense that the Guard had arrived not to reinforce the LAPD but as a peacekeeping force placed between the out-of-control citizenry and its out-of-control police force.
An Austrian-born editor of my acquaintance says that the way New Yorkers cope with street crime reminds him of the way ordinary Europeans navigated between the Nazis and the Resistance under Nazi occupation. The Resistance saw every citizen not known to be a partisan as potentially a collaborator, and therefore an enemy. The Nazis saw every ordinary citizen not known to be a collaborator as potentially a partisan, and therefore an enemy. In New York, my friend says, street criminals and the police, for different reasons, both look on ordinary citizens as potentially the enemy. Life for the ordinary citizen becomes, as a result, an endless round of precautions. One is never not on guard.
This comparison gives a paradoxical, probably unwelcome, confirmation to the black leaders who insisted on calling the Rodney King riot an "uprising." Though triggered by an action of the government, the riot had no real political content. The largely white Revolutionary Communist Party, the American affiliate of Peru's Shining Path guerrillas, did join in on the first night, but it was utterly peripheral to the main action. Those who used the word "uprising" were right in one regard, however. The riot was just a brief, high-intensity episode in a longerrunning, low-intensity conflict for which some word with a longer time frame built into it had to be found.
The trouble, increasingly, was that the mass of citizens were on neither side: not, obviously, with the criminals, our urban terrorists, but not quite with the police either. This was the truth that lurked in the welcome given the troops. If an extended occupation could somehow rein in both sides, law-abiding Angelenos of all races would welcome it. (Think how insurance rates would go down!) And most would greatly prefer benign military occupation—or, if you will, a vastly increased community police force—to the wildcat do-it-yourself policing of private gun ownership.
The ratio of police officers to residents in Los Angeles is 2:1,000, the lowest in the nation. And the horizontal immensity of the city's geography further complicates its policing problems. Los Angeles deploys fifteen officers per square mile, as compared with eighty-nine per square mile in New York. Changing the city's numbers would cost money, and neither liberalism nor conservatism has had the will even to make the case for the change. Liberalism wants to spend tax money on other needs first. Conservatism doesn't want to spend money on anything, not even public safety.
One of the first tasks of an occupying force, if we had one, would be disarmament. I dream of a house-by-house search for illegal arms. But we have no such occupying force, and we aren't likely to get one. On the day of his swearing-in, Police Chief Williams found himself in a public disagreement with Mayor Tom Bradley over whether the city could afford to increase its police force. Days after that, because of a catastrophic revenue shortfail at the state level, the question shifted to whether there would have to be a cut.
The smaller and weaker the police force grows, the greater the domestic arms race among the citizens. Gun shops were among the businesses looted during the riot. Thousands of stolen firearms were added to the hundreds of thousands already in circulation. Legal gun sales, as noted, jumped dramatically after the riot. The National Rifle Association has been running large display ads in the newspapers offering free instruction to new gun owners.
Two weeks after the riot David Freed, an investigative reporter, published an extraordinary five-part series in the Times on guns in Los Angeles. Eighteen months earlier Freed had published a similar long and chilling series on law enforcement and justice in the city, titled "Justice in Distress: The Devaluation of Crime in Los Angeles." Its conclusions were that a criminal here stands a small chance of being apprehended, if apprehended a small chance of being convicted, if convicted a small chance of serving a full sentence. In brief, the city appears to be essentially unpoliced. In the new series he was drawing a matching portrait of the public reaction, criminal and otherwise, to that astounding state of affairs. This time, as before, the statistics he marshaled were simply staggering. The rate of death by gunshot homicide in Los Angeles had been less than half the rate of vehicular death in 1970. In 1991 it exceeded that rate. Vehicular safety had improved somewhat, matching the national trend, but the gunshot-homicide rate had tripled: from 464 to 1,554 per 100,000. As for nonfatal shootings, they are so numerous that victims are interviewed briefly or not at all. Strikingly, the understaffed LAPD rarely attempts to trace a weapon. Over the past five years, Freed reported, "466,453 handguns were sold legally in Los Angeles County, one for every 19 residents .... In San Francisco, handgun sales totaled 20,606—a ratio of one for every 35 residents." To these handgun numbers must be added legal sales of rifles and shotguns and also illegal sales of guns of all kinds. And the number of guns sold in any way over a five-year period obviously does not equal the total number of guns in circulation.
The influence of guns on ordinary life in Los Angeles is pervasive and profoundly linked to race. During the days following the riot, blacks complained that they were treated with a tense, elaborate politeness when their fellow citizens couldn't avoid them altogether, but avoidance was the preferred strategy. Los Angeles begins at a low level of mutual understanding. The interracial hyperpoliteness whose artificiality offends many blacks is only a heightened form of the city's notorious laid-back manner. The superficiality of Angeleno conversation, so striking to Europeans, is a defensiveness born of experience: blandness as a protective coloration. One's conversation partner, after all, may be a follower of anyone from Swami Prabhupada to Charles Manson. Why provoke him when for all you know he is not just odd but armed? The diffuse paranoia of a city where so little is shared in the way of common history or securely held values is especially vulnerable to exacerbation by a real-life menace that is both acute and mobile. The automobile, every Angeleno's coat of mail, was no protection from the mob. As all the world knows, motorists were pulled from their vehicles and beaten or killed during the riot.
The entertainment leviathan feeds on this paranoia. Time Warner, the producer of Body Count, whose jacket art included a black fist holding a revolver pointed at the viewer, also produced Lethal Weapon 3. But conservative politics feeds on the same paranoia. By midsummer George Bush, Dan Quayle, some sixty mostly Republican congressmen, and the National Rifle Association had all joined the call for a Time Warner boycott. The Time Warner shareholders managed to face down two blinded police officers who addressed their meeting. Though one could feel sorry for them, freedom of artistic expression was a noble tradition, and then, too, profits were up. But when a pension fund decided to divest itself of Time Warner stock, internal dissent grew, and Ice-T, late in July, announced that he had asked his producer to reissue Body Count without the offending cut. The result was a last spurt in popularity for what is now a collector's item. Meanwhile, Daryl Gates's memoir, Chief.' My Life in the LAPD, rode high on the Los Angeles Times best-seller list for weeks.
FOR ALL THE COMPELLING POWER OF THE WATTS II paradigm, however, for all the relevance of white violence and black rage, something still more powerful was happening, and the Latino population of southern California was at the heart of it. About a month after the riot a friend sent me a copy of an unsigned editorial from a Mexican-American newspaper, La Prensa San Diego, dated May 15. What other Latinos had begun to insinuate, La Prensa angrily spelled out: Blacks were not victims. Latinos were victims. Blacks were perpetrators.
Though confronted with catastrophic destruction of the Latino businesses, which were 60% of the businesses destroyed, major looting by Blacks and by the Central Americans living in the immediate area and a substantial number of Hispanics being killed, shot and/or injured, every major television station was riveted to the concept that the unfolding events could only be understood if viewed in the context of the Black and White experiences. They missed the crucial point: The riots were not carried out against Blacks or Whites, they were carried out against the Latino and Asian communities by the Blacks ! What occurred was a major racial confrontation by the Black community, which now sees its numbers and influence waning.
Faced with nearly a million and a half Latinos taking over the inner city, Blacks revolted, rioted and looted. Whatever measure of power and influence they had pried loose from the White power structure, they now see as being in danger of being transferred to the Latino community. Not only are they losing influence, public offices, and control of the major civil rights mechanisms, they now see themselves being replaced in the pecking order by the Asian community, in this case the Koreans.
The editorial ended by declaring "the established Mexican American communities" to be "the bridge between Black, White, Asian and Latinos." It said, "They will have to bring an end to class, color, and ethnic warfare. To succeed, they will have to do what the Blacks failed to do; incorporate all into the human race and exclude no one."
There was, to put it mildly, little in that editorial to suggest that desperately poor, fifteenth-generation African-Americans might be within their rights to resent sudden, strong, officially tolerated competition from first-generation Latin Americans and Asian-Americans. But La Prensa's anger clearly arose not just from the riot, perhaps not mainly from the riot, but from frustration at television's inability to see Latin Americans as a part of the main action at all.
I don't think that any clear pattern of blacks attacking Latino businesses or Latinos attacking black businesses can be established. Koreans do plainly seem to have been singled out for attack—by some Latinos as well as by many blacks. But state officials believe that at least 30 percent of the approximately four thousand businesses destroyed were Latino-owned. Both "Sotnos Hermanos" and "Black Owned Business" were frail armor even when those labels were honestly applied. As the police re-established control, thousands of arrests were made; more than half of the arrestees were Latinos, but the older, second-generation, law-abiding Mexican-American community resented the lack of differentiation in the label "Latino." This community insisted with some feeling that in the communities it regarded as truly and more or less exclusively its own there had been no rioting. By implication this was the beginning of an anti-immigrant stance within the community.
What counts for more, however, than any incipient struggle between older and newer Latino immigrants is the emerging struggle between Latinos and blacks. La Prensa is right to stress the raw size of the Latino population. The terms of engagement, if we take our cue from the rappers, would seem to be black versus white or black versus Asian. But the Korean population of Los Angeles County is just 150,000, a tiny fraction of the Latino population of 3.3 million. Of the 60,560 people in Koreatown itself, only 26.5 percent are Asian; more than 50 percent are Latino. Blacks are the most oppressed minority, but it matters enormously that whites are no longer a majority. And within the urban geography of Los Angeles, African-Americans seem to me to be competing more directly with Latin Americans than with any other group.
I find paradoxical confirmation for this view in the fact that some of the most responsible leaders in both groups want to head it off. A month after the riot my wife and I received the June newsletter of the Southern California Interfaith Taskforce on Central America, a group to which we have contributed a little money over the past several years. SCITCA, originally a lobby for the victims of state-sponsored violence in (principally) El Salvador and Guatemala, has more recently expanded its agenda to include the fate of Central Americans now settled in Los Angeles. It has effectively lobbied, for example, for a relaxation of the municipal regulation of street vendors.
In the wake of the riot SCITCA was worried about antiimmigrant backlash. Joe Hicks, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and Frank Acosta, of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, wrote in the newsletter,
In the aftermath of the recent civil unrest .... Immigrants and refugees in particular have been targeted for blame, violence and civil rights abuses .... Fears of overcrowding, the burden on local communities, competition for scarce jobs, drainage on public resources through the education and social welfare systems are all commonly held apprehensions about the impact of immigrants in our communities. Similar fears were voiced during the migration of African-Americans from the south to the northern cities earlier this century. In the past few years, however, a growing number of social scientists, economists and researchers have concluded that the social and economic impact of immigration is overwhelmingly positive. By and large, it is the prospect of freedom and economic opportunity, not welfare, that draws immigrants to the state.
Hicks and Acosta were astute to recognize that the movement of millions of blacks from the rural South to the urban North was a migration as enormous as any from abroad, but the fate of those black immigrants and the cities that received them rather subverts the lesson the two writers want to draw. And alongside the recent, proimmigration literature that the two cite is a small but growing body of even more recent literature suggesting that whether we will it or not, America's older black poor and newer brown poor are on a collision course.
A married couple, both white, both psychiatric social workers in the Los Angeles Unified School District, recently told us of several monolingual school social workers who had been let go to make room for bilingual workers. With so many Spanish-speakers in the district, the rationale for requiring social workers to have a knowledge of Spanish is clear. Our friends have, in fact, been diligently studying the language to protect their own positions. And yet it struck them as tragically shortsighted that most of the dismissed social workers were black.
A member of our church administers a subsidized daycare center in northwest Pasadena, once a black neighborhood, now, like South Central Los Angeles, an extremely overcrowded black and Latino neighborhood. Black welfare mothers, our friend reports, are increasingly turned away from the center, because on the neediestfirst principle they no longer qualify. Latino mothers, often with more children than the blacks and with no income even from welfare, are needier, and claim a growing share of the available places. Are the Latino mothers illegal? Are they just iII-equipped to apply for welfare? The kindly day-care people don't ask.
Hicks and Acosta exhort: "The poor communities of Los Angeles cannot get caught up fighting over the peanuts that have been given to them by the economic, political and educational institutions of America." But even if these communities make common political cause, do they have any choice about economic competition? The General Accounting Office reports that janitorial firms serving downtown Los Angeles have almost entirely replaced their unionized black work force with nonunionized immigrants.
If you live here, you don't need the General Accounting Office to bring you the news. The almost total absence of black gardeners, busboys, chambermaids, nannies, janitors, and construction workers in a city with a notoriously large pool of unemployed, unskilled black people leaps to the eye. According to the U.S. Census, 8.6 percent of South Central Los Angeles residents sixteen years old and older were unemployed in 1990, but an additional 41.8 percent were listed as "not in the labor force." If the Latinos were not around to do that work, nonblack employers would be forced to hire blacks—but they'd rather not. They trust Latinos. They fear or disdain blacks. The result is unofficial but widespread preferential hiring of Latinos—the largest affirmative-action program in the nation, and one paid for, in effect, by blacks.
Pierre Venant, a French photographer of international reputation, made the acquaintance of Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit who until recently worked in a part of the barrio so badly wracked by gang violence that funerals are held almost weekly. Out of a desire to help Father Boyle, Venant began teaching photography in the barrio and photographing gang members and their sometimes exceedingly elaborate, mural-sized, almost liturgical graffiti. I asked him once whether he had ever considered teaching in the black ghetto. He answered no, that there was something so nihilistic, so utterly alienated, in the black youths he had met that he doubted he could make a connection with them. He was apologetic but plain: it was just easier with the Mexicans. "Maybe it is the Catholicism," he said, "or something in the Latin personality."
I AM AFRAID THAT QUIET CHOICES LIKE VENANT'S have by now been made so many thousands of times in Los Angeles that, at least to Anglos, Latinos, even when they are foreign, seem native and safe, while blacks, who are native, seem foreign and dangerous. In saying this, I am saying something that I shrink from saying and grieve to say, but I think it's true. As a graduate student at Harvard, I shared an apartment with a Nigerian, and I learned to measure by the ease and speed of my rapport with him, despite immense cultural differences (he had been raised in a polygamous family), how deep an estrangement separated me from African-Americans. For a time I helped to administer Harvard's Big Brothers program, which teamed freshmen, almost always white, with fatherless boys, almost always black, from the Columbia Point Housing Project. I spent a lot of time during that period with black people, and this in the 1960s, when interracial hope and good will were at flood tide. But in the end I felt that even with me they were prepared at every moment, at every single moment, for the worst—braced, as it were, for a blow. This is what slavery has done to us as a people, and I can scarcely think of it without tears.
Every other week since the riot a team made up of parishioners from my church, St. Edmund's, in San Marino, and from St. Martin's, in Compton, has distributed food to needy people in Compton. One of the albums of the rap group N.W.A. (the name stands for "Niggers With Attitude") is titled "Straight Outta Compton." Compton, a town in the South Central area of greater Los Angeles, has replaced Watts, a Los Angeles neighborhood, as a byword for black anger, and not just because of that album. But the people we see meekly filing past for their shopping bags of free food are more often old than young and, to my eyes, more weary than angry. Black writers since .at least Richard Wright's day have noted with bitterness how white America smiles on cute black children and the benign black elderly, while the prime-of-life adults of the black community and, above all, its young males are objects of white dread. Times have changed, at least some: Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy—if not niggers with attitude, then undeniably African-Americans with panache-would have been inconceivable in Wright's day. And yet I still caught myself being surprised—and then chagrined at my surprise—to see how frail some of our "customers" were. I was particularly struck by an old, bent black man wearing a bright green DAY LABORERS' UNION windbreaker. He wasn't up for much in the way of day labor, but when he had been young and strong, had he been a union man? What had happened to his union? And to his hopes? These are the black people nobody but other black people ever really sees and nobody but other black people ever stops to think about.
My wife and I sold the trailer in 1986 and bought a small house in an unincorporated chunk of Los Angeles County, adjacent to Pasadena on the east. Of twenty households on our block, one is Asian (Chinese), two African-American, and one Latino (he is Puerto Rican, she is Mexican). None of the houses on the block is large enough to accommodate live-in help, but several of us do employ gardeners. All the gardeners are Latino, and when a slight brown man walks down a driveway, he is understood to be there for good reason. Were a tail black man to do the same, there is not one of us who would not immediately be on the qui vive. My sadness about the American estrangement just mentioned doesn't make me act any differently at such a moment.
Black men complain that they cannot shop without being shadowed by a suspicious shopkeeper. The same in effect goes for the black teenagers who show up unannounced on our block. These are kids who skip out of the junior high school in the next block, picnic on our lawns, steal from our garages and back yards, and occasionally vandalize parked cars. The retirees living on the block watch the kids especially closely. One retiree once managed to videotape an attempted garage break-in. The school's officials—not always sympathetic (until recently the principal was a black woman)—-identified the culprits from the tape.
We, who live peacefully with the black families on our block, are afraid of these black kids. I contrast our attitude toward them with the attitude taken in neighboring Sierra Madre, almost completely white and Republican, toward a group of as many as twenty Latino men who gather each morning except Sunday in a park near the fire department. They are day laborers, the poorest of the poor, awaiting work. In principle (and especially toward the demoralizing end of a day when no one has hired them), they ought to be desperate, but they are in the main clean, quiet, mannerly, polite to the residents, and agreeably fraternal with one another. This very conservarive, old-fashioned community tolerates their presence calmly.
Whether or not Latinos are completely trustworthy (I have already mentioned the bloody barrio gang wars), I think that they do enjoy the trust or Anglos and Asians in Los Angeles. In the yard, in the house, with the baby, in the hotel room or the hotel corridor, in the parking garage, in a hundred locations, work, however menial, creates a vulnerability and thereby a brief intimacy between server and served. In all these places the average white or Asian Angeleno prefers to have—and usually does have—a Latino rather than an African-American doing the work. Whence at least some of the disorientation and diffuse anxiety at the television footage of rioting Latinos: Had that young man dashing out of the liquor store been in your back yard earlier in the week? Was that woman trundling a shopping cart of looted groceries out of the supermarket your neighbor's live-out? ("Liveout" is Angeleno for a domestic servant who works for you five or six days a week, all day, but doesn't sleep over.)
I do not discount, as I mention this "comfort factor," that inexperienced Latino noncitizens may be much easier to exploit than experienced black citizens. Ricky was hired at less than the minimum wage to do city-wall plastering on Santa Monica condominiums that sold for more than $ 1 million each. The contractor trained him on the job. Ricky learns quickly, and his by then confident bilingualism was a major plus for his employer. He was promised a "real" job after this unofficial apprenticeship ended, but no such job ever materialized. His brother Victor, who owns a car, worked briefly for a messenger service. He was required to use his own car. No mileage, insurance, or fuel costs were paid by his employer. He was paid by the mile only when actually delivering a package, but was required to keep himself available for an assignment even when none was forthcoming. The Latinos I know think that Asians are particularly likely to cheat and brutalize their Latino employees in ways like these.
And I do not mean, either, to sanctify Latinos at the expense of blacks. Victor called me as I was writing this article to report that Miguel, "Mike," the youngest brother in the family, was about to get out of jail. Ricky is also in jail as I write, and one of his earlier criminal ventures began with my wife. Near the end of Ricky's senior year his mother told me that he was dejected because he couldn't afford to attend the prom: no car and no money to rent a tux. I said I would rent the tux for him. My wife, who had just bought a used Honda and hadn't yet sold her 1969 Volkswagen, agreed to lend him the VW for the occasion. He had a good time at the prom but didn't return the car for two days. Graduation came a few weeks later. (The commencement speaker was State Senator Art Torres, whose remarks were all about Latino progress, but when the awards were given out, the few Asians in the student body won them all.) By custom, on the day after graduation local high school seniors head for Magic Mountain, an amusement park. Ricky asked to borrow the car again. We were already planning to sell it to him and let him pay us in installments from his first job. He was prematurely developing a proprietory attitude toward it. My wife had a premonition. I overrode it. He stole the car and skipped town.
The odd consequence of this episode was an intensification of my relationship with Ricky's family, especially his mother. The police, once they knew the car had been "borrowed for keeps," wouldn't list it as stolen. But if I couldn't call it stolen, I couldn't get it off my insurance policy. I had to gamble that if Ricky's ties to us were breakable, his ties to his family were not. It worked. Ricky eventually returned the car, and afterward even paid us $ 250 for it—less than it was worth but, given his resources, a meaningful gesture.
By that time we had a new baby in the house, and we lost touch with the Rodriguez family—until a few years later, when Victor called to invite us to his wedding. Ricky, who had been working as a house painter near Sacramento, was back in Los Angeles, nattily dressed and doing well, it seemed, as a salesman in a car dealership. Victor spoke of him with a kind of relief. But some months after the wedding Ricky and Victor's sister Elena called to ask, on behalf of their mother, if I would stand bail. Ricky had been stopped on a traffic charge, and a computer check showed that he was wanted for parole violation in the north. I declined, but later, on a trip to Sacramento, I visited him in the minimum-security jail where he was serving his sentence. ) learned then that during his first northern period he had become a father. The child, a boy, was being raised by its mother and her parents, Anglos with whom Ricky claimed to be on friendly terms, though clearly all contact had been lost. After his release from jail Ricky moved in with Victor, Victor's wife, and their new baby, but within weeks he had been arrested again, this time on a drug charge. When Victor called about Mike, he said that Ricky, too, would be out in a month or two.
Sometimes, as I have reflected on our checkered tenyear friendship with the Rodriguez family, I have wondered whether Latinos do not have a better local reputation, and blacks a worse one, than each deserves. But how much difference does reputation ultimately make? True, walking the streets of downtown Los Angeles, I do not expect to be panhandled or shaken down (the two grow increasingly similar) by Latinos; I do fear that from blacks. True, I am wary of black men and generally nonchalant with Latinos. I think my attitudes are typical. And yet, all that aside, if there were no Latinos—and no other immigrants—around to do all the work that is to be done in Los Angeles, would blacks not be hired to do it? I think they would be. Wages might have to be raised. Friction might be acute for a while. But in the end the work would go looking for available workers.
I AM NOT ALONE IN THINKING SO. IN JULY OF LAST year the Black Leadership Forum, a coalition headed by Coretta Scott King and Waiter E. Fauntroy and including Jack Otero, the president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, wrote to Senator Orrin Hatch urging him not to repeal the sanctions imposed on employers of illegal aliens under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. "We are concerned, Senator Hatch," the group wrote, that your proposed remedy to the employer sanctions-based discrimination, namely, the elimination of employer sanctions, will cause another problem—the revival of the pre-1986 discrimination against black and brown U.S. and documented workers, in favor of cheap labor—the undocumented workers. This would undoubtedly exacerbate an already severe economic crisis in communities where there are large numbers of new immigrants.
Labor leaders like Otero and another co-signer, William Lucy, of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, are notoriously critical of free trade, especially to the negotiation of a free-trade agreement between the United States and Mexico. Their opposition to lax enforcement of immigration law, which creates a free trade in labor, is only consistent. What difference is there between exporting jobs and importing workers?
The politics of labor and immigration makes strange bedfellows. On most issues the Southern California Interfaith Taskforce on Central America is an extremely liberal group, but on employer sanctions it sides with Senator Hatch. In effect, SCITCA would rather see wages go down and its Central American clients have work of some kind than see wages stay high and penniless refugees be left with nothing. La Placita, the Mission Church of Our Lady Queen of Angels, near downtown Los Angeles, became for a time a sanctuary for illegal hiring.
Latino immigrants at the bottom of the labor market often claim to be doing work that "Americans" refuse to do. Are they thinking of black Americans? It may not matter. Commenting to a New York Times reporter on the extremely low employment rate for sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds in New York City in early 1992—12.6 percent Vernon M. Briggs, a labor economist at Cornell University, said, "To an immigrant willing to work two or three jobs at once, $ 5 an hour may not look bad. But to a kid from Brooklyn or the Bronx, it is a turnoff." To some of their parents these kids seem to be prima donnas, but in fact the influx of immigrants willing to work long hours for low wages has depressed wages and increased competition beyond anything that the parents ever faced. And the attitudinal difference between unskilled Americans of any race and their immigrant competition shrinks as the immigrants gain a clearer view of what faces them in the United States.
During his buoyant junior year at Wilson High School, Ricky carried a pocket dictionary. One day he told me that he had come upon an entry that had shaken him to his roots: happy-go-lucky. "That's my problem," he said. "I'm happy-go-lucky." Ricky's merry, open-faced manner was one of his greatest assets, but I think I know what he meant. I had often marveled that a boy up against so much could remain so high-spirited. I now think that he simply hadn't yet realized how much he was up against. Tension grew between him and Victor after his first release from jail. Victor wanted Ricky to take a job, any job, just to be working: dishwasher, gardener's helper, anything. Ricky drew the line at that kind of work. He was able to do rough carpentry, dry-wall work, simple plumbing. Besides his building skills, he was completely bilingual and could even write surprisingly coherent and error-free English. "I am an educated man," he said to me in a choked voice.
Both words counted. Ricky was arrested again on a drug charge, but he has never been addicted. He was dealing, and he was dealing because as he had grown more American, he had grown impatient. "Ricky wanted money. That's what got him into trouble," Victor says. Jorge G. Castaneda put it differently in an op-ed piece in the Times:
In Mexico and El Salvador, with the exception of the role played by the church in the latter country a few years ago, poverty and inequality did not outrage its victims, nor did it lead them to violence .... But the same deprivation, with the same inequities, in a radically different context, produces different effects. Poverty and injustice were not supposed to be the same: The United States was the land of social mobility, well-paid work and unlimited opportunities. Not any more. A Latin-American migrant's future is often the same as his current reality: $ 4.50 an hour for unskilled labor for the rest of his or her life, maybe with a raise to $ 6 or $ 7 an hour, eventually.
But the young Mexicans or Salvadorans who do housework in Beverly Hills, garden in Bel-Air or park Jags and BMWs for restaurants on Melrose had no idea this is what awaited them when they left Usulutan or Guanajuato. And the ideological bombardment they are now subjected to no longer helps them accept matters as they are. On the contrary, it incites rejection, indignation and class hatred. Any spark can light the fire.
So, yes, Latinos compete with blacks for work at the bottom, but they also match them in rejecting $ 4.50 an hour as chump change. And then what? Then, among other things, readiness for a bread riot (a cake riot, if you will) in which the disappointed, by the thousands, steal what they once thought they could earn.
The question of how immigrant groups may fit into the American economy without dislodging or otherwise adversely affecting native groups is itself contained in the larger question of how an American economy carrying all these groups within it can compete against other national economies. In an article given wide distribution by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Vernon Briggs claims that immigration accounts for 30 to 35 percent of the annual growth of the American labor force, a proportion virtually unknown elsewhere in the industrialized world. In 1989, Briggs writes, "the total number of immigrants from all sources admitted for permanent residence was 1,090,924 the highest figure for any single year since 1914 (and this figure did not include any estimate of the additional illegal immigrant flow or of the number of nonimmigrants permitted to work in the United States on a temporary basis during that year)."
The immigration story becomes the riot story by becoming a part of the labor story. And by an irony that I find particularly cruel, unskilled Latino immigration may be doing to American blacks at the end of the twentieth century what the European immigration that brought my own ancestors here did to them at the end of the nineteenth. Briggs writes,
When the industrialization process began in earnest during the later decades of the 19th century, the newly introduced technology of mechanization required mainly unskilled workers to fill manufacturing jobs in the nation's expanding urban labor markets. The same can be said of the other employment growth sectors of mining, construction and transportation. Pools of citizen workers existed who could have been incorporated to meet those needs—most notably the recently freed blacks of the former slave economies of the rural South. But mass immigration from Asia and Europe became the chosen alternative.
The chasen alternative. Those are the words that should disturb our sleep. People do not blow into our country like the weather. We let them in, and we have reasons for doing so. Or we should. In my city, on my own block, in my own house, I have seen the immigrant Latino alternative being chosen over the native black one.
But this is only the beginning of the problem. I am talking about a mistake that is now, as it were, complete. Blacks in Los Angeles having been largely closed out of the unskilled-labor market, the earlier-arriving Latinos are now competing with the later-arriving Latinos. This is the embarrassing fact that La Prensa seemed so little able to face and that has led lately to a Latino Unity Forum. Briggs makes disturbing reading on the consequences of increasing the pool of unskilled applicants while the pool of jobs shrinks:
No technologically advanced industrial nation that has 27 million illiterate and another 20-40 million marginally literate adults need fear a shortage of unskilled workers in its foreseeable future. Indeed, immigration—especially that of illegal immigrants, recent amnesty recipients and refugees—is a major contributor to the growth of adult illiteracy in the United States. To this degree, immigration, by adding to the surplus of illiterate adult job seekers, is serving to diminish the limited opportunities for poorly prepared citizens to find jobs or to improve their employability by on-the-job training. It is not surprising, therefore, that the underground economy is thriving in many urban centers. Moreover the nature of the overall immigration and refugee flow is also contributing to the need for localities to expand funding for remedial education and training and language programs in many urban communities. Too often these funding choices cause scarce public funds to be diverted from being used to upgrade the human resource capabilities of the citizen labor force.
Briggs's analysis seems to me to make a mockery of the brave talk of a Los Angeles "recovery." What does it mean for the city to recover in an American society that is adding at least 700,000 immigrants a year to its population? The official "Rebuild L.A." coalition, headed by Peter Ueberroth, the former director of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the former commissioner of baseball, will be hard enough pressed to cope just with the city's share of those new workers. Assimilating so many new workers while re-assimilating the thousands left jobless by the riot may well be more than the economy could handle even in a boom period, and southern California is still deep in recession. The recession may mean that fewer Americans will move to the state, but if San Diego County statistics for 1990-1991 are any indication, foreign immigration may not be similarly slowed. In that period net domestic in-migration was just 427, a steep plunge in comparison with the increases of earlier years, but foreign immigration held steady at 19,442.
And competition for goods other than employment is more acute during a recession than at any other time. The Center for Immigration Studies estimates that direct public-assistance and education costs at all levels of government for immigrants and refugees entering the United States in calendar year 1990 totaled $ 2.2 billion. Immigrants and refugees made up 1.3 percent of the caseload of Medi-Cal, California's state-paid health care, in 1980; the California Department of Finance estimates that they will make up 13 percent by the turn of the century. The administrative office of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors reported in the spring of last year that federal costs for the citizen children of ineligible alien parents, including Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, had risen from approximately $ 57.7 million in 1988-1989 to $ 140.5 million in 1990-1991 and could reach $ 533 million by the year 2000. If the burden of that welfare grows too great, another tax revolt could take place, and another safety valve could be removed from places like South Central Los Angeles.
Few Californians are aware, I think, of how many public-school seats are filled by illegal immigrants. But as awareness grows, the already eroded support for public education at all levels may erode further. Nonimmigrant whites are still the majority in the state, and older whites —whose children may be grown—still turn out to vote more reliably than any other group. True, only some of the Asians burning up the track at the University of California are immigrants, but more are the children of immigrants. When whites in Berkeley's freshman class dropped to 30 percent, there was talk of a cooling of white support for the costly nine-campus system. As for the larger, more teaching-oriented California State University, it has never charged noncitizens legally resident in California a higher tuition; but a recent decision by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Ken Kawaichi now requires that illegal aliens receive the same generous treatment.
By July 1, when a budget impasse for fiscal 1992-1993 forced California to begin paying many of its bills with scrip instead of money, some of the bitterest infighting had touched the third and nationally least known of the state's higher-education systems, the gigantic California Community Colleges system, with its 1.5 million enrollment. Would the heaviest community-college cuts come in shortterm vocational education, hurting blacks disproportionately? Or would continuing education take the hit, hurting older white women returning to the work force? Little noticed in public comment on the budget battle was the fact that immigrants constituted 10 percent of 1990-1991 community-college enrollment. California was providing allbut-free higher education, in other words, to 150,000 immigrant undergraduates. For comparison, Harvard and Radcliffe together enroll fewer than 7,000 undergraduates. The community-college system has to be regarded as a de facto incentive for immigration—a GI bill for people who were never Gls, as I once heard it described. If and when free higher education for immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, comes under attack, however, free elementary and high school education for them will almost inevitably come into question as well. And the social dislocation lurking in the latter question is almost incalculable.
In March of last year Science published a research report by Georges Vernez and David Ronfeldt on Mexican immigration. The evidence in the report shows that recent immigrants are those who feel the greatest economic impact from still more recent immigrants. And because Mexican immigrants tend to be young and to have large families, they consume more in public services, especially educational ones, than they pay for. The researchers say that both the absolute size of the Mexican-immigrant population and its relative concentration in Los Angeles and several other western cities are growing.
Vernez and Ronfeldt also argue that "heavy immigration into California... let many low-wage industries continue expanding while their counterparts nationwide were contracting in the face of foreign competition." Their data show that in California "manufacturing grew five times the national average whereas wages grew 12 percent more slowly in the state, and 15 percent more slowly in Los Angeles." The implications for labor are clear: either manufacturing is exported to take advantage of cheap foreign labor, or cheap foreign labor is imported in numbers large enough to depress wages here. Open borders create a free trade in labor, and America's southern border, though not open by law, has been open enough in practice to move the Los Angeles labor market sharply away from the American mean.
Do we like it this way?
The short answer might be yes if we want more riots, no if we don't.
In his book Los Angeles: Capital of the Third World, David Rieff charges that white Los Angeles has grown addicted to the ministrations ofa Latino "servitor class," and there is something to his charge. In 1985 my wife and I paid $ 65 a week to a licensed, well-educated, decidedly middle-class Peruvian couple who cared beautifully for several infants and toddlers in a home they owned. Our newborn daughter was typically with them from 7:30 A.M. to 6:00 P.M. five days a week. My younger sister, who lives in Skokie, a suburb of Chicago, found this at the time an incredible bargain, and so it has seemed to New Yorkers and Washingtonians as well. Thus I no doubt fit Rieff's definition of white Angeleno indulgence myself.
The larger beneficiaries of cheap labor, however, seem to me to be the larger employers. Ricky's sisters Dolores and Graciela worked in a sweatshop assembling those little gadgets—two plastic eyelets joined by a length of cord—that tennis players use to keep their eyeglasses on. There were huge spools of the cord and barrels of the eyelets in the private home (of an Italian married to a Costa Rican) where they worked. And the profits from that little operation were surely peanuts compared with those made on the luxury condos where Ricky did his dry-wall work.
Obviously, Los Angeles should want to maintain a manufacturing base, large and small. But if the price is systematically depressed wages, and if the price of that depression is further riots, then the price is too high.
JUST DAYS BEFORE THE RIOT, THE ROPER ORGANIZAtion conducted a major poll of American attitudes toward immigration for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). On every single question for which the California response was broken out, the level of concern in California was higher—often strikingly higher—than the American average. Thus 76 percent of Californians answering the question "How do you feel about the number of immigrants who come to your state each year?" answered "Too high," as against 42 percent of all respondents giving the same answer. Answering the question "In your opinion, has immigration become a financial burden on your state, or has the state been able to handle the immigration with no financial problems?" 78 percent of Californians, as against 43 percent of all respondents, chose "financial burden." Eighty percent of Californians think that steps should be taken now to limit the population of the state (a question that Roper put only to Californians).
FAIR has an agenda, of course, and polls by people with an agenda are always suspect. However, the Roper Organization is reputable, and the questions are more or less those that anyone interested in the subject would ask, phrased in acceptably neutral language. Thus, "Currently, immigration levels are not limited in any way to our country's unemployment rate. Do you think immigration levels shouldor shouldnot be related to our level of unemployment?" Fifty-eight percent of respondents chose "Should be related." (Roper did not indicate whether any respondents corrected "limited" to "linked.")
FAIR is anathema to some, but better a clearly framed agenda, however debatable, than free-range nativism.
Some days after the riot I caught a fragment of televised debate between a handsome blond man of unsmiling, quasi-military demeanor, a proponent of a return to the pro-European quotas of the Immigration Act of 1924, and a Mexican-American activist of the Aztlan persuasion. Responding to the claim that the Southwest "was once ours," the young Aryan said, "Yes, and we took it from you in the manly, honorable way, by force of arms." A writer in the July, 1992, issue of the Rockford Institute's Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture laments the intrusion of immigrants who "have no more intention of shucking the Third World they've lugged across the border than they have of going back after they make their millions. Once here, they're here for good, disrupting our institutions, like public schools, with foreign languages, pagan religions, and oddly spiced foods."
FAIR holds no brief for manliness, Christianity, or bland food. Nor, for that matter, does it oppose immigration. What it does call for is a three year moratorium, or however long it takes to:
1) substantially eliminate illegal immigration;
2) implement and improve a national documents protocol to verify work eligibility;
3) revise immigration laws to substantially reduce overall numbers (to around 300,000 annually); and
4) complete a comprehensive analysis of the longterm demographic, environmental resource, urban resource, cultural and employment/economic effects of future immigration and population growth.
Ultimately, this question must be answered: What should the purpose of immigration be, now and in the future?
I link FAIR's question with the phrase of Vernon Briggs's that so struck me: "the chosen alternative." There are choices to be made. If we do not make them as a nation, through a national debate, then others inside or outside the nation will make them for us. My strong suspicion is that if FAIR succeeds in launching this debate, it will begin on the right (immigration was the cover story in the June 22 issue of National Review) but quickly be seized by the left. The labels "left" and "right," however, are particularly misleading here.
If the right opposes immigration, it is likely to do so for the reasons hinted at in the quotation from Chronicles and on display as well in the National Review article, by Peter Brimelow: namely, because it wishes the United States to remain a culturally European and even English nation. The free-market right wing, however—the right that has favored a free-trade agreement with Mexico—ought to favor open borders as the logical extension of the open shop. This is indeed the declared position of The WallStreet Journal. Such a position may be more ideologically consistent than politically feasible, but it is not without its supporters. Too many business interests have been served by cheap immigrant labor for any Buchananesque, shoot-to-kill sealing of our southern border to gain much Republican support. In short, between cultural conservatism and economic conservatism there is a certain tension on this question; but, as noted above, the situation is equally messy for liberals. If you marched with Amnesty International in Los Angeles on June 27, denouncing the border excesses of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, then do you positively—pro-actively, as they say—favor immigration? FAIR would admit 300,000 immigrants a year. How many would you admit? And if blacks get hurt, whose side are you on?
The traditional alliances grow particularly shaky in a climate of budget crisis like the current one in California. As I write, if California public education receives what Governor Pete Wilson budgeted for it last January, and if current revenue projections remain unchanged, then all other government services will have to shrink drastically. Mayor Bradley has warned of a total shutdown of the Los Angeles Public Library. Few believe that will happen, but if all ordinary deals are off, then some unlikely deals may be on.
FAIR has proposed, for example, a $ 2.00 border-crossing fee to finance strengthened border security. According to the Roper poll, 72 percent of Californians favor that measure, and I am not surprised. Against them stand those who favor lax border security and some who go further and call for a borderless, European Community-like arrangement. The fee proposal could at least bring the issue to a head. Senator John Seymour has proposed a bill by which the federal government would be riscally responsible for some or all of the legal costs incurred by illegal aliens, including public defense and incarceration. I'm not so sure that liberals wouldn't back that idea if they thought it would free up some California money for the beleaguered university. Representative Elton Gallegly, a Republican from Simi Valley, has proposed that American citizenship be denied to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. I doubt that many Americans, liberal or conservative, have stopped to consider that not every country establishes citizenship as we do—that is, by place of birth rather than by descent. Perhaps the biggest bombshell would be the imposition of a citizenship requirement for elementary and high school education. I am not aware that anyone has proposed this. But the Los Angeles Unified School District, faced with a $ 400 million cutback in its state funding for the coming fiscal year, notified its teachers in late July that their pay would be cut by 14 percent, and despite the severity of the economies, the district could conceivably go into receivership-as the Richmond District, near San Francisco, did last year. When such a thing happens, Sacramento is stuck both with a cash bailout and with the task of direct administration—all but impossible in the case of a system with 600,000 students. In such an unthinkable crisis unthinkable remedies might suddenly be thought of.
On June 23 Tim W. Ferguson published a column on immigration in The Wall Street Journal, under the title "The Sleeper Issue of the 1990s Awakens." He is right to summarize the issue thus, and in this sense, at least, I would agree with those who have called the Rodney King riot "a wake-up call." But what may quite possibly happen if the country hears this call is the revival of another sleeper issue—namely, labor. If you want to keep up with labor news in Los Angeles, the way to do it is to read La Opinion, the city's major Spanish-language newspaper. The GAO report I mentioned earlier says that during the 1980s the downtown force of hotel workers went from being almost 100 percent black, and organized, to 100 percent immigrant, and nonunion. That report has been overtaken by events during the past five years. The unions are finding that the same Americanization, the same "Where's mine?" impatience, that turned Latinos into rioters can also turn them into strikers. A remarkable shot across the civic bow came when Local 11 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union produced and distributed to convention planners an "attack video" linking a grim portrayal of the dangers of life in Los Angeles to declining wages and deteriorating living conditions for the poor. As Frank Clifford, a Times writer, put it: "The message of the video is that the city won't be a nice place for tourists until the tourism business is nicer to its workers." A much improved contract followed with rare speed.
WHETHER OR NOT THE IMMIGRATION DEBATE becomes a labor debate, America may not have the luxury of treating it as a merely national issue. Race relations were once the quintessentially domestic American problem—"an American dilemma," as Gunnar Myrdal called it. Immigration, too, a fact everywhere, was a boast here. What other nation had a major monument inscribed "Give me your tired, your poor .... "? But these points of view have now changed. Because the world has shrunk, emigrants don't have to cut all ties to home and east their cultural and economic lot with us as they once did. If it is possible for an American businessman to have a vacation home in France, it may be possible for a Korean businessman to have a "work home" or a "school home" in America. And if resolving the American dilemma—in other words, instituting a "blacks first" poliey—creates a problem for such immigrants, the result may be an international incident, if not a long-running diplomatic problem.
South Korea's government sent a delegation to Los Angeles to request reparations for the burned-out merchants of Koreatown. The presidential candidate Kim Dae Jung came too, and though he spoke of compensation rather than reparation, his visit, like that of the government delegation, served notice that South Korea needs these merchants and still regards them as its own. Mexico made no comparable gesture, but it is worth noting that of Mexicans who entered the United States during the 1960s, only 21 percent had become citizens by 1980. This kind of statistic is usually cited to explain why Latinos have so little clout in American politics. But the same statistic, given an increase in cross-border tension, could explain why some future Carlos Salinas de Gortari or Cuauhtemoc Cardenas could become a factor in U.S. domestic affairs as the powerful extraterritorial leader of millions of noncitizen residents of the United States. Any attempt in the interests of American blacks to seal the U.S.-Mexican border and seal in all of Mexico's unemployed would deprive Mexico of a desperately needed safety valve and could foster the rise in that country of a terrorist movement like Peru's Shining Path. In short, America is no longer quite free to address the needs of its own underclass in isolation from similar needs elsewhere in the world.
Last spring saw both the riot in Los Angeles and the debacle (for the United States) of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—the Earth Summit—in Rio de Janeiro. U.S. coverage focused on the environmental half of "Environment and Development." The delegates, however, were at least equally interested in the developmental half, and therefore in the enormous disparity of wealth between the First World and the Third World. It was the reluctance of a Republican Administration to submit to a sociopolitical agenda dictated from afar that caused all the difficulty. President Bush sent William K. Reilly, of the Environmental Protection Agency. By rights, he could have sent both Reilly and Jack Kemp, of Housing and Urban Development.
FAIR has an ally of sorts in the United Nations Development Program, where much of the developmental half of the Rio agenda was hatched. Aldo Ajello, the assistant administrator of the program, who visited Los Angeles a month after the riot, is, in his own highly nuanced way, an opponent of immigration. The immigration of selected, well-prepared people can be good both for them and for the country that receives them, he says, but mass immigration of unskilled, unprepared people simply adds the problems of culture shock and maladjustment to the problems the immigrants are fleeing. From the standpoint of a developed country, opening markets to products from a neighboring underdeveloped country that otherwise might be reduced to exporting desperate, surplus people makes good economic sense. So does investing in such a country—for the same reason. Given a choice between exporting jobs and importing people, Ajello urges exporting jobs as the less disruptive alternative.
Because that alternative is not being chosen, he says, and because the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade actually governs (and frees) only a small fraction of world trade, enormous pressure is building for mass migration-the largest, he thinks, that the world has seen since antiquity. When I pointed out to him that the U.S.Mexican border is the only land border between a First and a Third World country, he countered that Italy has a long, undefended coastline, that crossing from Morocco to Spain (or from Tunisia to Sicily) by boat may be easier than crossing from Haiti to Florida by boat, and that the land border between Western Europe and the former Soviet bloc is in some ways comparable to the U.S.-Mexican border. In the long run, he believes, global development will require open borders as well as truly free trade. As for the short run, "your choice is Marshall Plan or martial law." Absent the most severe countermeasures, the increasing disparity of wealth will tend to move people across borders as irresistibly as a low-pressure-high-pressure system moves clouds. The top 20 percent of the world population had thirty times the wealth of the bottom 20 percent in 1960. Today it has 150 times the wealth of the bottom 20 percent. Equalization can come about in only two ways: by immigration or by development; by moving people from the Third World to the First, or by moving capital from the First World to the Third. An American moratorium on immigration might be a defensible temporary expedient, but only if it was accompanied by a compensating increase in investment.
American discussions of immigration tend to focus on pull rather than on push—that is, on those aspects of American life which pull immigrants in rather than on those aspects of life in their native countries which push them out. FAIR might put in place quite an assortment of American disincentives—changes in the pull—without addressing the Third World distress that creates the push. At that point, having declined the Marshall Plan alternative, we might be forced into the martial-law one, and into a particularly severe form of it along our southern border. President Bush was less than eager to visit Los Angeles, and he was particularly loath to dignify the Rio conference with a personal appearance. In the end he could avoid neither, and he was, in effect, visiting two ends of the same globally disruptive process.
THE SAME COLLEAGUE WHO REMEMBERED THE sack of Rome as we left the Times building, its windows still boarded up, the streets not yet patrolled by the National Guard, had earlier lent me his videotaped copy of the PBS Civil War series. Midway through the writing of this article I concluded my viewing of the series and heard an actor reading Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. There is a strange, deep similarity between the logic of angry blacks who called the Rodney King riot understandable and inevitable-and, indeed, barely stopped short of calling it justifiable—and the logic of the man who wrote,
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled up by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."
My deepest, least argued or arguable hunch is that everything in America begins with that old and still unpaid debt. An America in which it was finally paid, in which blacks were no longer afraid and no one was any longer afraid of blacks—what could such a country not attempt? But if, to quote an ex-slave, all God's dangers ain't the white man, all God's dangers ain't the black man either. The earth, as the century ends, has many wretched, and we are living in their house.
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